The Hamilton County Commission has approved a tax hike to meet $225 million in capital education, economic development and jail needs.
Commissioners also approved giving qualifying elderly and disabled citizens a break on their property taxes.
Last week, Mayor Jim Coppinger announced a proposal to bring in an extra $25.5 million that will be used to borrow money to fuel a wide array of projects, including $100 million in school construction and repairs, a $45 million wastewater treatment facility in Northeast Hamilton County and another $20 million or $30 million to expand the Silverdale Correctional Facility.
To do that, he asked commissioners to keep the county's existing tax rate of $2.7652 per $100 of assessed value on the books, allowing the county to benefit from property value increases resulting from the recent countywide reappraisal. By law, local governments cannot just take in more money because property values increase; they have to adopt a certified tax rate that will keep the overall revenue level the same.
Commissioners Randy Fairbanks and Sabrena Smedley were sworn in as the body's new chairman and vice chairwoman, respectively. The commission elected the pair last week.
Immediately after commissioners adopted the lower state-certified tax rate of $2.4976 per $100 of assessed value, they voted 8-1 to put the old rate back in place. Commissioner Tim Boyd cast the only "no" vote.
Commissioner Jim Fields said he believes the county can't cut costs to meet all of its needs anymore, citing years of bare-bones budgets where the county got by solely on its growth after the last tax increase in 2007.
"As I understand what we're presented with here, we are at a crossroads where we can either continue to tread water a little bit and maybe sink or we can start swimming forward," Fields said. "I think in order to do that, to swim forward, we've got infrastructure needs that need to be met."
A number of commissioners wanted to make it clear that tax bills will go up only for properties that increased in value. On average, Hamilton County property values increased 10 percent.
Boyd said he liked the proposal's vision, but that's about where his support ended, citing the eight days between Coppinger's announcement and the call to vote. He questioned the planning and assurances involved in the tax hike proposals.
"I have no time to look at that," Boyd said. "Three [business] days to consider a tax increase of this magnitude is fiscally irresponsible."
Coppinger pointed out, as he has previously, the other eight commissioners keep in regular contact with him.
"This is really not a time for political speeches or any rhetoric," Coppinger said. "We are at the crossroads."
While the tax hike calls for making a hard decision, it will move the county forward, he said. Coppinger added it was "ridiculous" to think they did not have a plan in place in the first place.
All the commissioners fell in line for a 9-0 vote when it came to having the county adopt the state's tax relief program, which reimburses qualifying applicants whose income does not exceed $29,180.
For Hamilton County, elderly and disabled program recipients receive $185 in annual benefits from the state, while disabled veterans or their widows received $1,210, according to a recent presentation to commissioners. The county will provide a 50 percent match to those payments, amounting to $93.33 and $604.89, respectively.
In 2016, 3,427 Hamilton County taxpayers qualified for the program. It will cost the county $500,000 to support the program in 2017.
Commissioners chose the state tax relief program over the state's senior tax freeze, an option championed by Commission Vice Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley.
"A lot of times these seniors are having to make a decision between medication or groceries or utilities," Smedley said. "I'm living true to a campaign promise to look out for the seniors in District 7 and Hamilton County as a whole."
Commissioners tabled the senior tax freeze proposal in a 6-3 vote, with many saying it was not as good a deal as the tax relief program.
While the senior tax freeze program's $38,720 income limit for Hamilton County residents is higher than the income cap for the relief program, it will not offer any benefit to qualifying seniors in 2017. In short, the senior tax freeze program won't impact participants until the county has its next tax increase.
With the green light for funding, the county is ready to get the capital projects moving, Coppinger said.
"We want to react as quickly as possible," he said. "There might not be something tangible you see immediately, but the work will start immediately."
This story was updated Sept. 6 at 11:47 p.m.